Alfred Louis Kroeber

The American anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber (1876-1960) was one of the major proponents of the so-called Boasian school of American anthropology.

Alfred Kroeber was born on June 11, 1876, in Hoboken, N. J. He entered Columbia College in 1892, where he helped to found Morningside Magazine. He received a bachelor's degree in 1896 and a master's degree in 1897.

During his junior year Kroeber began to study with Franz Boas, who had come to Columbia in 1895 to build a department of anthropology. Kroeber signed up for Boas's course in North American Indian languages and became fascinated by the grammatical intricacies of Chinook. In 1897 Kroeber interviewed Eskimos brought to New York by Adm. Perry. His first articles, on their folklore, appeared in 1899. That same year Kroeber began his first fieldwork among the Arapaho, and this work formed the basis for his dissertation on Arapaho decorative art. He received his doctorate in 1901.

Kroeber then accepted a position as instructor in a new department of anthropology established at the University of California at Berkeley. The department was originally intended as a research institution, but Kroeber almost immediately began offering academic instruction as well. He taught at Berkeley until 1946 and was professor emeritus until his death. He was also curator of the anthropological museum from 1908 to 1925, when he became director, a position he held until 1946.

Under Kroeber's leadership, California developed the country's strongest undergraduate anthropological teaching program. The founding of academic departments, at California and elsewhere, meant formalization of existing teaching methods. Kroeber thus wrote an introductory textbook, Anthropology (1923), and prepared a reader, A Sourcebook in Anthropology (1925), in collaboration with T. T. Waterman.

Gradually, Kroeber came to consider description of California Indians as his life's work. Linguistic classification provided a valuable means of recovering the cultural history of the American Indians. Accordingly, in 1903 Kroeber and Roland Dixon attempted to classify the linguistic diversity of California's Indians, placing 16 languages in only three structural types, which they named Penutian, Hokan, and Ritwan. A decade later, addition of systematic vocabulary lists to grammatical evidence led to the conclusion that the structural similarities were genetic.


Archeology and Ethnology

Kroeber was one of the first to apply seriation, or typological classification, to archeological finds in North America. His work at a Zuñi pueblo in 1915 convinced him that archeology, as well as ethnology and linguistics, could be used to reconstruct the history of cultures without written records. In 1922 Kroeber began his studies of Peruvian archeology, using seriation to the virtual exclusion of archeological context. His major summary of the Peruvian work appeared in 1944. After a heart attack in 1943, however, Kroeber decided that his possible contributions to the systematization of California ethnology deserved priority.

American archeology and ethnology relied heavily on the concept of the culture area—a geographical region sharing numerous cultural traits. Kroeber's Cultural and Natural Areas of Native America (1939) stressed the ecological correlates and technological skills of such areas for exploitation of the same environments at different times in history. He also argued that culture areas focused around a "culture climax," or area of greatest elaboration. Consequently, Kroeber sought regularities in the growth of arts and industries in historically distinct cultures, but his data failed to reveal any broad-scale patterns.


Spokesman of American Anthropology

Kroeber became the recognized spokesman of American anthropology. In 1948 he revised his textbook, expounding his view of the integrated nature of the discipline. By 1952 "culture" had come to be the integrating concept of a holistic anthropology in America. Indeed, Kroeber had long believed that culture was "superorganic," that is, larger than the individual and independent of the biological nature of individuals.

Although Kroeber specialized in California ethnology, he was concerned with other areas as well, writing, for example, on the peoples of the Philippines. He also turned to problems of relating anthropology to other disciplines, particularly psychology and biology. He sought to define human nature by the range of known cultural diversity and by contrast with social life of different kinds of animals.

Kroeber was a member of numerous scientific societies, and he held six honorary degrees. After his retirement in 1946, he continued to teach at Columbia, Harvard, Brandeis, and Yale until his death in Paris on Oct. 5, 1960. With the increased specialization of anthropology, it is unlikely that any future anthropologist will control the range of knowledge and interests characteristic of Kroeber's entire career.


Further Reading on Alfred Louis Kroeber

There is an excellent biography of Kroeber, written by his wife: Theodora Kroeber, Alfred Kroeber: A Personal Configuration (1970). The development of Boasian anthropology is discussed in detail in Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968), and George W. Stocking, Race, Culture and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (1968).